Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Realistic Magic And GURPS Mechanics

I'm still working on articles that discuss realistic magic in GURPS terms from a philosophical perspective, but a quick note on how to approach it from a mechanical perspective seems appropriate.

Coming back here to edit now that I've finished the main article, I note with irony that "quick" may be a relative term here. Still, no cut tags today. You get the whole thing! Also, I seem to have touched on a lot of the areas that I was intending to touch on in regard to the philosophical underpinnings, so I am no longer sure that a separate article is necessary. I guess I can answer questions about anything I skipped over, or go back to the article if there are enough questions to justify it.

For the most part, GURPS can handle magic without going outside of the realm of existing skills and relatively non-cinematic advantages. The exceptions are pretty well handled in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1: Philosophers and Kings, with one notable loss from the perspective of those of us who approach matters with an animist bent. Those who conceive the universe in purely materialistic terms don't even have to worry about that little bit.

Let's start with advantages and disadvantages, then skills, and then discuss the matter of spirits.

GURPS advantages that can be used to represent any number of realistic magical elements include, obviously, the set of Luck advantages, including Luck itself in its various levels, Daredevil, and Serendipity. My own experience seems to indicate that there is nothing so blatant as Super Luck in the real world—though I am open to the possibility—but Luck, Extraordinary Luck, and perhaps even Ridiculous Luck do seem to affect some people. As well, Unluckiness seems to follow some people, and I am open to the idea that some rare people may even be Cursed. Higher Purpose and Visualization might be considered to fit into this cluster, as well.

Similarly, the Empathy collection of advantages—Animal Empathy, Empathy, Plant Empathy, Sensitive, and so on—would represent the basis of a number of demonstrated "psychic" abilities.

Channeling and Medium, as well as Spirit Empathy, should be available if spirits are assumed. See the discussion below. Some would say that they represent something real even in a setting where "spirits" are not literal entities.

Charisma is a real thing. To some degree, it is a trained ability—for example, see The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane and other books that discuss "charisma"—but also represents the force of personality that magical training can build in a person.

Is Common Sense a psychic power? It certainly is a mental one, which is, after all, what "psychic" means.

Danger Sense does seem to be a real thing, demonstrated by non-human animals, and seeming to exist in some humans. Sure, you can explain it away as the result of a variety of sensory impressions being taken as a gestalt, but to a large degree that is exactly what "magic" refers to. Not exclusively, but that philosophical discussion is mostly beyond the scope of this article.

Eidetic Memory certainly covers some of the Art of Memory methods, which have been considered to be a part of magic for longer than materialism has separated the world into magic and science as opposed pairs. Photographic Memory is of a similar character.

The Basic Set doesn't mark Gunslinger, Trained by a Master, or Weapon Master as outside the realm of reality, but that's a question each Referee will have to resolve for themself. Obviously, Heroic Archer is in this cluster of advantages as well. If they do exist, then they would represent a certain sort of magic that is associated with "martial arts", speaking broadly.

I don't know if Illuminated corresponds with anything in the real world. Maybe it does. Certainly, there's nothing about it that would immediately disqualify it. Probably limit to certain sorts of settings, but still within the realm of realistic magic, I guess.

Indomitable seems like it is magical in nature, being specifically connected with the idea of influence. Unfazeable may be similar.

Intuition, of course, is clearly magical. It codifies into rules the ability to derive helpful information from seeming ignorance. It may also represent the sort of thing that goes by terms like "remote viewing", at least if connected to a skill like Intelligence Analysis and a Technique. Let's quickly write up something that we might use. We'll start with the idea that such a feat is of "Impossible" difficulty, but that it can be trained.

Remote Viewing
Hard
Default: Intelligence Analysis-10
Prerequisite: Intelligence Analysis, Intuition, cannot exceed Intelligence Analysis

By making a Remote Viewing roll, a character can get an impression about a distant target. The character may always take Extra Time in any such attempt, with a basic time of 10 seconds per attempt. The Margin of Success indicates how many interesting elements that the character successfully Views, with each element being determined by the Referee. For example, with a Margin of Success of 3, a character could receive a result of "An open plain, with a tree, and no animals or men present" (and, of course, they or their handler would already know what the target was, so they'd have to apply this description to what they already know). Note that some targets specifically include interesting but uninformative elements in an area they wish to protect from Remote Viewers. Referees should not take up more than one, or two if the false-interest objects are specifically designed (with extra cost at some level that I haven't worked out yet; probably 10 times?) for the purpose, of the "interesting item" slots with false-interest items. Failures at Remote Viewing will introduce false elements. Referees may mix false and true elements in a failed Remote Viewing session in order to particularly mislead Remote Viewers, but should never provide true elements that the characters don't already know about. For example, a failed attempt to Remote View a submarine base might include elements relating to a submarine, but then also false elements that are misleading. If the characters know little or nothing about the target for certain (Remote Viewing Mars, for example) then everything might be a false element on a failure.

Is Remote Viewing possible in reality? Certainly, there is quite a bit of experimental evidence. Some people do dispute the evidence, and in practice the ability has apparently been shown to be of limited practical use for Intelligence purposes (or is it just that Intelligence agencies have chosen to bury it deeper from scrutiny? Who knows what is really going on in that hall of mirrors. As it happens, some public entities, companies and individuals, do in fact consult Remote Viewers as part of their overall decision process, but this is another thing that should be left up to individual Referees for their particular settings). For some arguments about the method, along with some other science-based arguments toward "magic" generally, see Real Magic by Dean Radin, for example. I realize that some people disparage Radin and some others (Daniel Bem, Rupert Sheldrake, etc) on an ad hominem basis, but I can't help those people. Their studies speak for themselves, and it's fun to watch materialists move the goalposts whenever one of them seems to meet the predetermined criteria for showing an effect.

Even so, a glance at books like Naturalistic Occultism by IAO131 can show that there are a plethora of effects that have been traditionally codified as "magic" which can be described by such disciplines as modern neuroscience, and measured with devices such as CAT Scans and so on. If Remote Viewing is off the table, still a number of other abilities described here are not even controversial.

Okay, that was a little more in-depth into the underpinnings of the "realistic magic" approach than I really wanted to get into for this article. Still, it's useful, I hope.

Continuing on, it may be possible for the Referee (or players!) to come up with other Techniques that rely on mixing Intuition with other skills. Be careful to limit their effectiveness. Note that, for example, the Remote Viewing Technique above requires that the player spend as much as 12 points in addition to the cost of Intuition to have even marginal effectiveness (1 point in a Hard Skill for IQ-2, 11 points in the Technique to have it at Skill, or more likely 2 points in the Skill for IQ-1 and 10 points in the Technique to give Skill-1, either way giving a final Success Chance before other modifiers of 8). It's probably also worth looking at mixing other Advantages such as Danger Sense or even Luck with various Skills to represent other apparent abilities, such as maybe the alleged Remote Influence described by some soi-disant "psychic spies". That's getting outside of what I would consider strictly likely from my own experiences, however.

Oracle seems to be reasonable, and may be a way to represent those people who seem to be able to provide useful advice from divination techniques. However, as we'll discuss when we get to Skills, this may not be strictly necessary to represent these. From my own experience, I do think that some people are able to go beyond the limits described in Skills, but I think that the question remains an open one. Referees should probably allow a Technique that combines Oracle with Fortune-Telling if they want to allow the Advantage. I would, but I'm not going to define the Technique right now.

Alternately, a Referee could go so far as to allow the Precognition Advantage. There is some experimental evidence in its favor and the Advantage is sufficiently pricy for a fairly limited game effect. Up to you. I might not go this far, myself, but I go back and forth on it. In such a setting, the Destiny Advantages and Disadvantages are probably worth including. Similarly, the Psychometry Advantage isn't outside the realm of possibility, even if its experimental evidence is even less conclusive than that for Precognition. It is a little overly-reliable as written in game terms, though, so it's another one that is questionable.

Some theorists, such as Timothy Leary, have seriously proposed that Racial Memory might be a real thing, with a discernible, even possibly materialist, mechanism. There is some slight evidence that some sort of environmental information might be transmitted through DNA, with such things as the effects of trauma or PTSD possibly having an effect on the specific genetic sequences passed to the following generation. I dunno, maybe? This seems less well-documented than, say, Bem's precognition results. At the least, though, it isn't very outlandish in effect. Racial Memory (Active) might be pushing things, though, even at 40 points.

Rapier Wit. I mean, it's not a crazy effect, but it seems like it's probably cultural in nature. I probably wouldn't include it in a modern setting, where we're deeply indoctrinated with the idea that "words won't hurt me", but it might have a real effect in, say, an ancient Irish one where the effects of satire are understood to be real and powerful.

Single-Minded can represent certain types of trance states, but maybe it's better to leave this to the Autohypnosis Skill, which provides a similar effect. Speaking of that, I wonder if the two effects stack? Neither the Skill description nor the Advantage description rule the other out, so it would seem that they do.

Does Special Rapport exist in reality? There are certainly anecdotal reports of something like it. Sheldrake's experiments with dogs knowing about their owners returning home seem similar. It's questionable, but there is some reason to include it. Up to the Referee.

Visualization has a lot of experimental evidence in its favor. High-level athletes are not the only group of people who swear by the method. However, it seems to work best for people who are already at a high level of skill in the real world. Should it be a separate advantage, or just assumed as part of advanced levels of Skill? That's a difficult question. Should the Blessing and Cursing Enhancements from GURPS Powers be allowed? There is less evidence either way for this, but my experience would say that they should be. It's expensive enough that few characters in a realistic game are likely to have these abilities, but plausible enough to be worth allowing in theory. Cut the cost down by taking "Takes Extra Time" or the like.

I don't know about Wild Talent. Anecdotally, it does seem to exist to some degree, but I am not aware of any experimental evidence for something similar. I'd include it in a realistic game, but I can see arguments against it.

I'm not going to go through Perks in detail, though some of them clearly should exist in a realistic magic setting, like Autotrance.

Moving on to Disadvantages, let's just go through them in order, leaving out the ones we've already dealt with in the Luck cluster above.

Berserk matches up with some experiments that some groups have done with somafera "body-wild", which is specifically the idea that the human body can exceed its normal limits in particular circumstances. Advanced somafera practitioners relate that these abilities can be developed so that the loss of control is minimized. I refer the interested to Putting on the Wolf Skin and Scientific Magic, both by Wayland Skallagrimsson. Referees who accept these possibilities may make other Advantages available, using various Enhancements and Limitations. The prototypical ones would be Damage Resistance to Fire Only and Tough Skin, or Enhanced ST (or only Striking ST or Lifting ST) that costs FP, both connected via Accessibility to the Berserk Disadvantage, and then perhaps buying off the Berserk requirement (and Disadvantage) with further development.

Delusions are probably very common among real-world magicians. Certainly, in my experience, many magicians hold some very unorthodox beliefs to be true. Don't forget, though, that GURPS does specify that a Delusion might be factual in the end, it's just that most people don't believe it to be true and react to people who do accordingly.

Disciplines of Faith are a prerequisite to some of the "Technicians of the Sacred" practices described in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1: Philosophers and Kings.

Does Epilepsy allow a character to make use of the Dreaming Skill during waking hours? Up to the Referee. I'd say yes.

A lot of magicians develop something like Guilt Complex, since a lot of their worldview includes the notion that they have the ability to exert control over reality to some degree. In such cases, mishaps can be seen as personal mistakes and failings.

According to some researchers (here I am mainly thinking about T. M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist whose study, Persuasions of the Witch's Craft, is rather controversial in magical circles due to a justifiable perception that Luhrmann abused the trust of many of her informants, many magicians may suffer something very similar to Gullibility. I interpret Luhrmann's data in a very different way than she did, though. It doesn't help, when studying a social group, to apply one's own cultural assumptions to that group in interpreting the data from that group. Whatever, it's a book worth reading when trying to understand what exactly is going on in the real-world practices of magic. Like all of the ones I recommend, it needs to be understood in context, though, and not taken as Holy Writ.

Impulsiveness and Overconfidence might afflict some people who have too much reliance on their magical understanding and supposed powers. Similarly, people who rely excessively on divination might become Indecisive. Those who place too much significance on success and failure as magical outcomes might become Manic-Depressive, or even gain Low Self-Image. Obsessing over astronomical events might bring about Lunacy. Or maybe these things only reflect a deeper sensitivity to acausal connections.

Nightmares, Phantom Voices, Sleepwalker, and Split Personality can represent some cases of "demonic possession", and it may be possible to overcome them, at least temporarily but possibly as an explanation for buying them off, by using some of the magical Skills described later. That's a matter for the Referee to determine, and might already be described in the relevant rules, but I'm not going to go through them in detail right now. I think that GURPS Social Engineering: Back to School may discuss using Skills to justify buying off Disadvantages?

Pacifism is far from universal among magicians in the real world, but some do make it a distinct part of their worldview. Note that, in reality, most human beings should have Pacifism: Reluctant Killer in any case. Not having that Disadvantage is usually described, informally at least, as "sociopathic" or "psychopathic", and it might be worthwhile to give such characters an automatic Reputation Disadvantage (perhaps -2 to all who have the Reluctant Killer Disadvantage and notice that the character is a "casual killer"). Maybe Post-Combat Shakes or even Combat Paralysis could be a reasonable alternative, too, if the Referee is willing. Certainly, other forms of Pacifism could replace these.

Strange events often do cluster around people who get into the practices of magic. Whether that is because the practitioners become adept at reframing otherwise innocuous events as unusual or they actually do happen more often is an open question. If an actual thing, then Weirdness Magnet might be appropriate, though for myself I dislike that Disadvantage immensely (isn't this already assumed to be the case in a roleplaying game?) and would not recommend it.

Finally, the following Skills are directly appropriate to any character in any setting who is said to practice "magic" in the sense of occult sciences. Magicians will also often develop other useful Skills, such as the Influence Skills, Artistic Skills, and the Prestidigitation-related Skills (and see that discussion below), as well as the Cinematic Martial Arts Skills and Musical Influence if they are available, but this list is for the more strictly magical ones.

Autohypnosis, Body Language, Breath Control, Cryptography (one magical text, Steganographia, is entirely a manual of cryptography presented in magical terms), Dreaming, Esoteric Medicine (if available, and perhaps it should be), Exorcism (see the discussion on spirits below), Fortune-Telling, Hypnotism, Meditation, Meteorology/TL4 (aka Weather Sense), Occultism (of course), Philosophy, Propaganda, Psychology, Religious Ritual, and Theology.

It's important to consider the "Technicians of the Sacred" section of GURPS Low Tech Companion 1: Philosophers and Kings. There are a number of skills described there which can be used to induce Autotrance and Dreaming effects in those lacking those Skills, including Religious Ritual, Dancing, Singing, Musical Instrument, and so on, even Erotic Art (which corresponds to a fairly large section of magical practice known as "sex magic").

Now, keep in mind that it was the magician John Dee who founded the world's first espionage agency (and his code name in it was 007!), and that previously espionage was treated as a largely esoteric and magical practice. Specifically, the deliberate obscurantism of the magical arts in history have been useful to those trying to control the flow of information. Even today, espionage agencies are frequently found skulking around esoteric sciences and philosophies.

Prestidigitation. In the past, magicians had to provide a show for their clients, going all the way back to the shamans of Siberia and other such "primitive" magicians. Magic is largely a practice that affects the mind, and so its effects are not immediately visible. This can reduce the effectiveness as the client stops trusting in the process and begins to fall back into previous patterns. To dramatize these rituals, some magicians have made use of "special effects" involving sleight of hand and misdirection, such as seeming to withdraw "disease" matter from the body of the client. Modern "skeptics" have pointed to these practices as indicating that the underlying techniques were therefore ineffective, with many modern stage magicians getting in on the scam of "debunking" anything that isn't described in purely materialist terms. They're mistaken, of course, but then as someone who doesn't accept the automatic supremacy of the materialist hypothesis, I would say that. Anyway, a magician, especially before the early 20th century, is very likely to have learned various prestidigitation skills like Sleight of Hand, Filch, Holdout, and the like, as well as Performance and such.

Spirits. Here we come to the biggest break between the materialist and the animist worldviews. The fact is that we can't measure spirits. On the other hand, we have fairly reliable methods of communicating with them which anyone who wants to take the effort can learn. The more sensitive among us can naturally feel their presence even without communicating directly. Materialists have attempted to explain these feelings with talk of standing sound waves, low-frequency sounds, and the like, but these seem to ignore the intermittent nature of some of these perceptions.

So do spirits exist? I would argue that they clearly do, as many people report being able to sense them, and that is repeatable enough, if not 100% reliable. Religions exist because many people are able to sense the presence of spiritual forces or entities (and then those perceptions are organized into social forces; the existence of the latter does not disprove the former). If some can't sense them, that doesn't disprove them any more than the fact that some people are blind or deaf disprove the existence of light and sound. They do seem to be very subtle forces, of course. I wouldn't go so far as to simulate them even with, say, ST 1 Telekinesis. Or maybe they are capable of such limited effects, as some hauntings correspond with physical stigmata such as scratches appearing on the afflicted, and of course some people have documented, inconclusively, some sort of "poltergeist" phenomena. Don't even get me started on the weirder end of what has been called the "Daimonic", though the interested can begin with books like Passport to Magonia by Jacques Vallée, Daimonic Reality by Patrick Harpur, or just about anything by John Keel (but especially Operation Trojan Horse, aka UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse).

How, then, to represent them in GURPS terms? The simplest method would be to start with the Astral Entity Meta-Trait, and to assume that Medium or Channeling are the only sure ways of communicating directly with them. Alternately, some of the Spirit Meta-Traits described in the Basic Set, GURPS Fantasy, or GURPS Horror provide a great place to start, and then the Probability Alteration Power from GURPS Psionic Powers can represent the more direct effects that some Spirits can use to affect the world. In any case, the ability to affect the material world should definitely be kept to a minimum, but that doesn't mean that it should be ruled out entirely. Even beyond that, though, these entities have the ability to communicate with those who are sensitive to them, as seen through Medium and Channeling, but perhaps also through Dreaming Skill. Dreaming communications may require interpretation via Fortune-Telling (Dream Interpretation), and are likely to be presented in symbolic terms, such that a Spirit wouldn't just say, "Hello, there are people preparing to raid your headquarters," but would instead be understood through a communication of dogs bursting through the windows of a dream house. How this is differentiated from the same dream being a sexual metaphor and wishful thinking is via the use of Fortune-Telling (Dream Interpretation).

Some such Spirits should be tied to locations, representing the Spirits of those locations, while others will be tied to objects, groups, or concepts. A great many Spirits are those of living or formerly-living persons, with Spirits of dead people commonly being called ghosts while those of living people have various names such as doppelganger, the Double, and the like. GURPS Spirits has some discussion of different sorts of Spirits. The most complex and powerful Spirits are frequently called Gods, Lwa, O-Kami, and similar terms that usually indicate deep respect and worshipfulness. In my own experience, apparently contacts with these great beings are usually with entities that are representative of them, rather than the beings Themselves. GURPS Voodoo: The Shadow War was particularly accurate, in my opinion, in framing all such contacts as being with Spirits of varying power level and able to appear in more than one example, such that one person could call for a Major Manifestation of a particular Lwa, while their friend could also call one at the same time, and the person they were opposing potentially could as well! These could be said to correspond to angels "messengers", while the Arch-Angels of monotheistic traditions would be in roughly the same position as the Gods of polytheistic ones. (I will refrain here from arguing how polytheistic assumptions seem to match observed reality better than monotheistic or atheistic ones. See A World Full of Gods by John Michael Greer—note, absolutely not the one of that title by Keith Hopkins, which is on an entirely different topic relating to the rise of Christianity in the ancient world—if you are interested in that topic.)

I'm not going to enter into a long discussion of herbalism (GURPS: Pharmacy (Herbal), at least in part, plus Meditation and other Skills described in "Technicians of the Sacred" in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1), entheogenic substances (again, see that "Technicians of the Sacred" section in GURPS Low Tech Companion 1), alchemy (GURPS: Chemistry/TL0-4 plus Meditation, as well as the occasional prestidigitation Skills), and the like.

Finally, it is useful to any real-world magician to have detailed and specific knowledge Skills. Everything from Intelligence Analysis to Naturalist to Market Analysis to Strategy and Tactics Skills, and many more besides, are going to be useful parts of the knowledge base of a real-world magician. Gambling is useful in calculating the odds and so advising a King or other decision-maker, which is a common enough place for magicians in history (again, see Dr. John Dee and his relationship with Queen Elizabeth I's court). Even outside of that, magicians were sought out by other people looking for advice on topics ranging from love to healing and beyond.

Because I think that it can be useful to end a long article with a bibliography of works that are useful but weren't referenced in the body, here are some works that are going to be particularly useful in understanding real-world magic that weren't referenced above:

Betz, Hans Dieter - The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation

Brennan, J. H. - Astral Doorways (also a game designer, known mainly for Timeship, which was notorious for blurring the lines between magical practices and roleplaying, and that during the Satanic Panic years)

Child, Alice B. and Irvin L. Child - Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples

Couliano, Ioan - Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (if you read nothing else I've referenced, read this one)

Dukes, Ramsey - How to See Fairies

Dunn, Patrick - Magic, Power, Language, Symbol

Dunn, Patrick - Postmodern Magic

Greer, John Michael - Green Wizardry (attempts to be for the modern world what Picatrix and similar texts were, in part, to the early modern one, a collection of useful science and art that can help a community or individual in daily life; more importantly for these purposes, discusses in some detail what such texts were trying to transmit, and so what magicians were often expected to know)

Greer, John Michael - Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth

Keith, William H. Jr. - The Science of the Craft (a somewhat credulous, but definitely worthy, attempt at understanding magic through modern, cutting-edge science; written by a noted gamer and fiction author)

Lecouteux, Claude - Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies (really, anything by Lecouteux is worth looking into; pick a title that interests you and go from there, and if you can read the French originals, more power to you)

Marsh, Clint - The Mentalist's Handbook

Paper, Jordan - The Deities Are Many (along with Greer's A World Full of Gods, an excellent primer of polytheistic theology; where Greer's work is an apologetic and even a polemic, Paper's is a confessional; I should probably point out here that "polytheistic" and "animistic" are pretty well synonymous in the world outside of academia and the people who build their worldviews on the frequently artificial and theoretical distinctions of the academy—which is to say that I can't think of a real-world instance of a polytheistic religion which isn't also animistic, nor any pre-modern example of animism which is not also conceptually polytheistic)

Paxson, Diana - Trance-Portation

Pócs, Éva - Between the Living and the Dead

Skelton, Robin - Spellcraft (especially in conjunction with Thompson, below)

Skinner, Stephen - Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic

Skinner, Stephen - Techniques of Solomonic Magic

Smith, Dave - Quantum Sorcery (another credulous approach to mixing science and magic)

Smith, Morton - Jesus the Magician

Stone, Kelly L. - Thinking Write

Thompson, Christopher Scott - A God Who Makes Fire (especially in conjunction with Skelton, above)

Whitcomb, Bill - The Magician's Reflection

Wier, Dennis R. - Trance: From Magic to Technology

Wilby, Emma - Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits

Anyway, I hope this is helpful to you in some way.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

What? More Than Three Months?

I was looking at Old School RPG Planet, which I highly recommend, and noticed that my blog was underlined for some reason. Hovering over it, I saw that it was because I hadn't updated in over 90 days! What‽

Okay, so I think I'm just going to update on what has been going on with my gaming. I will divide this into four parts, one for the GURPS game I was running and the one I am currently running, one for the AD&D 1e game I am currently playing, one for the Call of Cthulhu game I am currently playing, and the final one for the Fantasy Wargaming game that I am currently preparing. That's going to get long, so I think that I should put in a cut tag.


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

My Gaming Life, An Update And A List

My campaign of GURPS set in my own world of the Deindustrial Future is winding to a close. I have committed to running another GURPS game after that, this one being about superpowered humans in the modern day. It's going to try to explore some of the disrupting influence of superpowers, which should be interesting, in the sense that I would not want to live in that world. I  am increasingly certain that, while I still like GURPS quite a lot, it is dropping down my list of favorite systems pretty fast. Still, some settings I want to do are easier to do in that game than in others, since other games would require inventing and writing down game statistics for things and such, where those statistics already exist or are easily customizable in GURPS. It would be so much better if there were some reasonable way to randomly generate characters. Also, GURPS allows for some superpowered characters that are not possible or are difficult to depict in other systems.

I have a friend, a great Lovecraftian fiction fan, who has decided to give running Call of Cthulhu a try, and he is learning very quickly and doing very well. So, that's a second group, and one that is growing. I'm finding that to be a lot of fun too.

One of my players for the GURPS game is now running AD&D 1st edition, attempting to play mostly by the rules as written (no psionics, a few other small changes). We've had two sessions so far, one spent doing a large combat mostly so that we could get the feel for how the AD&D combat rules as written work in practice. It's so much easier than some people say to use weapon vs. armor type, weapon speed factors, charge rounds, and so on. Even so, since it was completely new to some of the players, and years since those of us who had ever played that edition had played—and even then, we weren't really playing by AD&D rules, but rather a streamlined form of B/X or BECMI using the AD&D tables—the second session was completely taken up by that one combat, as we looked up various pieces of information. Even there, we missed important information about how Clerical Turn Undead worked in that edition, but we'll get it next time now that we know.

Playing AD&D has, perhaps paradoxically, re-inspired me to work on my update to Fantasy Wargaming. To do that properly, I think that I'll need to play it as it is in order to see how things work and understand how best to approach any changes. It's been since 1982 or so that I last played that game, and my memories of it are a little foggy. I do remember that the game worked just fine, so it's definitely not "unplayable", as some allege. I do think that there are some areas that I will be changing pretty drastically, such as formalizing fatigue a little more given how important it is as a limiting factor on some activities, changing wounds to conditions instead of a pool of points, maybe tightening up the magic rules some. I have a feeling that I would want to tighten magic back toward things that were supposed to have happened, either as actual magic or as miraculous events given the close affinity of religious miracles with magic in the system, rather than the very wide-open system given—or perhaps I won't, and maybe just tighten up the rules some as they stand, or even work out a way to make it even more flexible. The question is how I am going to manage to get some play of that game in, given the limitations on which days of the week I have available for gaming. I have some ideas on how to make that work, so we'll see if I can get that working.

Which does remind me that I still plan on returning to the series on real magic and how it can be depicted in gaming. Let's just say that the source of inspiration for that series has gone silent for the moment, though I expect it to begin nagging at me again any time.

I've committed to finishing up my conversion of the meta-tasks of the Marc Miller's Traveller (aka T4) supplement Pocket Empires into MegaTraveller equivalents, even though I have no ability to test the rules. That is going slowly but surely.

I've been occasionally noodling around with ideas about running a PBEM game of Realms of the Unknown, which would require me to set up a better record-keeping system than I have managed to put together yet. It's definitely been moved from the back burner to somewhat active development, though. I'm not sure how the setting would look yet, as I'm probably going to wait to work on that until I have more useful tools for that sort of thing.

So, given that my gaming priorities have been changing now that I am back to gaming mostly regularly, let's give a new list of my top 10 games, or really top 12 but who's counting:

1: MegaTraveller and classic Traveller (tied)
2: AD&D 1st edition
3: Fantasy Wargaming
4: GURPS
5: Chivalry & Sorcery (2nd edition, though other editions are fine)
6: Hârnmaster
7: Aftermath!
8: Cyberpunk 2020
9: Swords & Wizardry: White Box and White Star (tied)
10: Villains & Vigilantes 2nd edition

Honorable Mentions: Flashing Blades, Adventures Dark & Deep, Space 1889, anything Basic Roleplaying but especially Call of Cthulhu (and I guess I haven't mentioned that the player who is running AD&D has been low-key hinting that he'd like me to run RuneQuest 3rd edition, which he loved when I ran it many years back, so that's another thing that is impinging on me; if I did, I'd have to choose whether to run it in the default Fantasy Earth*, Glorantha, or a setting of my own design that I've had simmering for a few years and is in fact a development of the setting I used for that game of so many years ago), Lords of Creation, The Arcanum (1st or 2nd edition, I haven't seen 3rd or the 30th anniversary editions yet), In Nomine, Guardians (the superhero RPG based on original D&D), Delving Deeper, Pendragon, Lace & Steel, Marvel Superheroes RPG, Realms of the Unknown.

Settings that I am working on to varying degrees of effort: the GURPS superpowers one, an authentic-medieval one with monsters and such set around the Third Crusade for Fantasy Wargaming, a feudal-medieval-authentic world based on the 20 kingdoms of the SCA that draws loosely on the actual history and notable events of that illustrious organization plus added fantasy (this would be intended for any of Chivalry & Sorcery, Fantasy Wargaming, Pendragon, or Hârnmaster, or really any game that can handle an authentic medieval feudal setting), a setting based on the world of Lords of the Middle Sea—which is an obscure wargame that Chaosium published back in the '70s—and a more detailed deindustrial setting set some time in the further future that doesn't rely on so many fantastic elements as the one that I am currently finishing up. I've also spent a few brain cycles on the Flanaess Sector idea, but it hasn't really gone anywhere lately.

Yeah, as usual, I have put way too much on my plate, but hopefully I can actually turn some of it into practical use.

*The Fantasy Earth setting for RQ3 was set somewhere roughly around the 8th or 9th century, probably, given the territory available to the Byzantines in it.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

James Smith's Family Needs Assistance

The family of James Smith, whose sad passing I had the misfortune to report, is trying to raise money to cover funeral expenses, as James had no life insurance or other resource for that purpose—not surprisingly, perhaps, considering the untimely age at which he passed. James did a great deal of work promoting and aiding old school gamers and gaming, and I think that this is certainly a time where we can give back.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

RIP James Smith

Though many of you will already be aware of this, I feel like I need to say something.

It is with heavy heart that I report that James Smith of Dreams of Mythic Fantasy has passed away. He was a wonderful addition to the online gaming blog community and to the gaming community generally. He will be greatly missed.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Thinking Of Superhero Games

Reviewing Heroes & Heroines, along with an upcoming superpowered game that I have, caused me to think about games designed to cover people with extraordinary powers. As it happens, at the moment I am not very fond of a lot of them. Champions suffers from a very clumsy game system, made worse by having to learn the system and spend a lot of time to create characters. This last is also a problem with GURPS Supers, but at least that system has developed into a very clever one that manages to deliver more "realism" for less effort than any other game I can think of. It's currently the one that I am planning on running my upcoming game in, but this post is part of a process there.

So, here are the games that are interesting me at the moment, along with links to where to get them.

Villains & Vigilantes — this is currently available in a new edition titled Mighty Protectors, but I haven't had a chance to evaluate that edition yet. I am mostly interested in the 2.1 edition linked here. For one thing, there are no point-buy systems in version 2.1, and I understand that Mighty Protectors has fallen prey to that seductive mechanic. One of the great things about V&V was always that it was just a matter of generating basic stats, rolling up—or choosing—some powers, and filling out the front-loaded calculations. That's part of the reason that I had the FBI Guide series.

Guardians — This is a little attempt to portray what the Original Adventure Game might have looked like if the authors were more interested in comic book superheroics than pulp fantasy. Like V&V, creating a character is more about picking a set of powers than spending points. That's really good from my perspective.

Supergame — The point-buy mechanic for creating characters is less intrusive here mainly because the game is very fast and loose. Still, it's less interesting to me than others in this list, mainly because of the weird, calculator-intensive rules (seriously, you roll d% and multiply that as a fraction of the base damage to find out how much damage you actually do, but only in hand-to-hand combat). Also, like most point-buy games, the players have to learn how play works in some detail before they can really create reasonable characters. There is a supposed third edition of the game now, but it is apparently a complete rewrite by new authors that only keeps the title.

Heroes Unlimited — I feel weird putting this in my list, since I really got most of my experience of it in the first edition, which we mockingly called "Heroes Limited" due to its inability to really handle the genre well. I understand that the second edition has fixed that issue, so I am bringing it back into consideration for my table. A major advantage of the game is that players can pretty much choose to use any of several character creation systems, from relatively freeform to relatively point-buy.

Marvel Super Heroes — The main disadvantage here is that the game is out of print and pretty expensive on the aftermarket. On the other hand, the PDFs at the Classic Marvel Forever website are more or less designed to be printed out, so that's an option. Still among the best possible superpowered games out there. Just don't roll on the tables in the Ultimate Powers Book, since they're really badly done. The selection is great, though. Pick your powers, I guess, and work out the power levels with the Referee.

Heroes & Heroines — This is a really unlikely choice for me, since it suffers from multiple problems such as being out of print, using a point-buy system, and so on. Still, it's not totally off the table for me because the sketched-out system is a perfect place to land a "rulings not rules" game. Still, Guardians is probably a better choice there.

GURPS Supers — Look, this is the only game that can actually handle Wolverine's adamantium-laced skeleton, and frankly I've had some of my superpowered NPCs inspired by the list of advantages and powers in the game. It's also the only game in print that can, more or less, do Dune just off the shelf, including weird things like having access to ancestral memories. The Supers supplement includes, among other things, the best discussion of Precognition as a superpower in a game that I have seen. If nothing changes, this is the game that I will be running. If only it had options to not be point-buy. Also, Wildcard Skills annoy me and the templates here rely on them to a degree, to the point that it's difficult to root them out of some of the templates—guess why I'm considering other games.

Mutants & Masterminds — I am not really fond of D20 games, except that they've allowed retroclones and such to happen, but this one seems alright. Mainly, I'm interested in the Paragons setting, which is pretty close to what I intend for my setting, and the Mecha & Manga supplement covers magical girls, which I do love. It runs a line between point-buy and not by allowing the player to effectively create a new class for their superpowered character or choose a pre-designed, relatively generic one, and then using that in a D20-like framework. Still, Guardians, and for that matter V&V, seems to cover most everything here and better.

Savage Worlds — On the one hand, the dice mechanic revolts my statistics-oriented mind, but on the other hand all of my players are both familiar with and fans of the game. Less intrusive point-buy system, but still a point-buy system. I'll leave it on the table as an option, maybe. I'll have to look at the superpowers system first. I have a suspicion that it isn't robust enough to cover some of my more outré characters.

Man, it sucks that Golden Heroes and Super Squadron are both out of print and in-demand enough to be really difficult to get. Not that I'd necessarily pick one of those, but they would provide a couple more options that wouldn't be terrible.

So, what other superpowered games that don't rely on a point-buy system—or which have a really compelling reason to consider them that outweighs the point-buy system—am I missing?

Saturday, March 2, 2019

[Obscure Games] Heroes & Heroines

It has been a long time since I've written anything in this series—the last actual review of a game was in May of 2015!—so it is time to dust it off and give some attention to yet another game that hardly anyone has heard of. This time, we're going to address another superhero game, Heroes & Heroines, one of the more ambitious games of the '90s.

In the early '90s, comics had been suffering a bit after the crash of the (mostly) black & white indie comics of the '80s, and mainstream comics were shoveling out increasingly boring storylines. Worse, creators were starting to realize that they deserved a lot more from their creations, both in terms of creative control and financial reward. This led to the rise of "creator-owned" comics, many of them attached to the new publisher Image Comics. In addition, some of the smaller publishers decided to make a bid to take over some of the superhero comics market that was so thoroughly dominated by Marvel and DC. For instance, Dark Horse began its line of "Comics' Greatest World" superhero-comics, and Continuity Comics tried to forge a world by attempting major crossover events between its titles, giving the world the "Deathwatch 2000" and "Rise of Magic" storylines.

Into this ferment stepped a first-time game designer and publisher, James E. Freel III, whose publishing company, Excel Marketing, decided to try to make a splash by licensing as many of these smaller attempts as possible and putting them all into one game system, titled Heroes & Heroines. As the back cover marketing copy said, "No need to buy single or no licensed Comic Book Role Playing Games anymore!" The "single licensed" games that refers to, of course, were the Marvel Superheroes RPG from TSR and DC Heroes from Mayfair Games. The "no licensed" games referred to the likes of Champions and Villains & Vigilantes, or really any other superhero RPG of the time, all of which presented their own settings, unconnected to any actual comic books.

Heroes & Heroines was quickly followed by three supplements, The Maxx, based on the critically-acclaimed book from Image Comics, Deathwatch 2000, which covered the Continuity Comics crossover event featuring the likes of Ms. Mystic, Samuree, Monolith, and so on, and Comic's [sic] Greatest World, adding the characters from Dark Horse's superhero world such as Ghost, Barb Wire, Titan, and Division 13. Unfortunately for me, my ex-wife got The Maxx in the divorce, while I kept the rules, and I never did get either of the other two supplements. I ordered Comic's Greatest World recently from a used book store across the country, but it's still shipping, and it seems that no one in the world is currently offering to sell a copy of The Maxx supplement for the game.

The game itself is surprisingly simple and intuitive. Instead of a "strength" stat, a character is rated for how much weight, in pounds, they can bench press. This isn't really the best choice for an overall strength measure—I'd probably choose overhead press, whether strict press or push press, as a reasonable measure—but it is the one most often used in comic book write-ups when companies publish encyclopedias of their characters, and it's probably fair to estimate overhead press as about 80% of bench press. Intelligence is represented by IQ, which is rated just as real-world IQ tests present their scores, with an average of 100. Other stats don't come from real-world values, but are still fairly simple to eyeball for a given character or person.

Superpowers and skills are similarly straightforward. If a character can teleport, they buy the teleport power. On the other hand, if they pass through dimensions, they buy the dimension travel power. Which costs 5 points less but tells the reader to refer to the teleport power for details, for some reason? OK, the game could really have used some editing and development. Anyway, as noted, characters are designed using a system of points. The extensive list of powers helps in some ways but is a problem in others.

Different powers provide different Attack Ratings, Defense Ratings, and the Mental equivalents. Comparing the Attack Rating of the offensive power to the Defense Rating of the target on a chart gives the chance on 1d20 to succeed in the attack. Damage is subtracted from pools of Hit Points and Mental Hit Points, with a pool being reduced to zero causing the character to fall unconscious, while reducing the Hit Points pool to -8 kills the character. I am not sure why that value instead of, say, -10 or whatever. Taking a large fraction of the character's total Hit Points in one attack has a chance of Stunning the character.

There's not a lot more to the game. At this point in my gaming career, I find that refreshing. I am somewhat attracted to games that are only the barest of frameworks right now. We can point to the original edition of D&D, which was similarly very bare-bones in its approach, relying on rulings by the Referee to handle other situations.

The biggest annoyance with the game, for me, is the lack of editing, which is made worse because Freel is one of those writers who have picked up a lot of very idiosyncratic spellings and usages.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Quick Administrative Note

I've removed the blog associated with a certain person from my blogroll here due to the accusations of abuse and other activities made against him by his former partner and several associated women, and corroborated by others. I believe them.

I hope that the company most associated with that individual does the right thing, but given the owner's association with Jordan Peterson I don't necessarily hold a lot of hope that they will. If they don't, that'll be too bad. They have made good products, ones I am still happy to own.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What Is Magic? - Part Two - Spirits

In my last post on the topic, I started to lay out a catalog of what magic was to the people who practiced it. It sort of got out of hand there, which isn't surprising since I foolishly embarked on this series without a real plan. Flying by the seat of my pants is sure fun, but let's see if we can get this thing back on track. Note that this is a very speculative post. There is only a little consensus on what spirits "really are". These are some of my thoughts on the subject, and they are necessarily incomplete.

One thing you might have noted is that I left a large part of magic to "spirits". You might also have noted that I left a really wide open space for what a "spirit" actually is, mentioning both entities of the sort that we can communicate and interact with, and also "energies" of astral powers. As I re-read what I've written there and the library with which I began this series, I noticed that I left out an important strand of thought, that of "mythorealism", the idea that myth can and does incarnate in the waking world. I do want to emphasize that this is only one model among several, though, and I am not making any particular endorsement by discussing it in this post.

In the mythorealist view, as I imperfectly understand it, "spirits" are the relationships between things. When we develop a pattern through art and tradition, we can see that pattern existing as actual instances of orally-told stories, written texts, works of art, natural occurrences, and the like. So, we find a person that we call "Thor", who is manifest as stories, statues, rolling thunder, and so on. But these things aren't Thor, are they? They are stories, statues, physical phenomena. On the other hand, the relationship we have with these things is an entity in itself. In point of fact, we can develop a relationship with that relationship, which is another level of the matter.

So, more generally, what is a spirit? We can think of a spirit as a non-physical entity. Nearly every metaphysical outlook includes room for non-physical entities. Even the most strict materialist includes "organizing principles" or "emergent properties" or an "implicate order" such as the "rules" that make gravity manifest as one thing while making gamma rays manifest as another thing. Scientists codify these rules as mathematical operations, but those are descriptions of the non-physical entities, not the things themselves. There are also relational systems, which are sometimes called "software", which are not the same as the physical systems which manifest a particular set of software.

Other outlooks describe spirits as other things, from the naïvely prosaic idea that spirits are just like material entities only made out of some unknown and immaterial substance—which is the way that most games treat them, perhaps because it allows spirits to be modeled with only slight modifications to the normal game rules; I am particularly interested in the few exceptions, even when the games that do so are not necessarily very good otherwise, and I will get to the gaming precedents as this series goes on—to the sophisticated concept of relationships mentioned above, to concepts of psychological fragments existing as processes within our material brains, and so on.

Probably the most common approach to understanding spirits is a psychological one, in no small part because our experience of spirits, for those of us who do experience them in a way that we express in that manner, is one that occurs largely within our minds. That is, not having a material existence, people can't usually observe spirits with material senses like sight and hearing. Or, if they do, many will attribute the experience of a spirit to a sort of gestalt of perceptions, such as when a lonely, windswept moor manifests a different spirit than a hot, humid jungle.

Some magicians posit a relative impermeability between the level of existence on which spirits exist and the material world we experience with our physical senses. So, in this model, a spirit has an existence on the "astral plane"—or whatever the particular magician calls it—which can't affect the "physical plane" directly, but instead causes changes in the physical world by indirect means such as influencing beings that exist on both "planes" such as humans. On the other hand, some thinkers have pointed out that spirit-like phenomena can and do sometimes leave physical traces, which has been termed the "daimonic". Items like the Simonton pancakes—a set of four apparently-normal pancakes that Joe Simonton claims were given to him by the occupant of a strange flying object that landed in his yard—or the tiny shoe found in Ireland that exhibits wear patterns exactly as if it had been worn for some time by a tiny person, not to mention the instances where radiation has been detected at alleged "UFO" landing sites, or where UFOs themselves produce radar reflections. The daimonic is sometimes absurd.

Some such "daimonic" traces are clearly hoaxes. The Patrick Harpur book I mention in the library post, Daimonic Reality, includes some discussion of the photos of "Doc" Shiels, which have been pretty thoroughly examined by the periodical Fortean Times, with the conclusion that they are probably fabrications, and of course the examination in that book of "crop circles" has been undercut by a couple of groups who have come forward to claim that they have been manufacturing those unusual artworks—it's probably worth noting, though, that none of the groups making the "hoaxing" claim have been able to replicate more than a simple circle while under observation nor any of the various epiphenomena that are related to the circles, and at least one person involved has openly wondered what it is that drives him to make the circles in the first place. For that last, keep in mind the above idea that spirits operate through influencing human behaviors.

The "all in the mind" theory still leaves ample room for some strangeness. One magician wrote a book with the subtitle It's All In Your Head … You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is, which lays out some of the issues in a pithy way. One formulation of this argument is that the brain is less like a computer and more like a radio receiver. Now, keep in mind that any metaphor for how the brain works is one fraught with parochialism. That is, every era has a model of the brain that draws on whatever the currently-fashionable technology might be. In the 19th century the brain was an engine, in earlier times a pneumatic vessel, and so on. So, even if the metaphor of the computer is more attractive, still a brain is not a computer. In any case, in the "radio receiver" metaphor, the brain receives something from elsewhere that contains or manifests consciousness. The brain might store things, perhaps in the sense of a "warehouse" of sensory impressions, or perhaps a holographic "hard drive" of sense data, but the experience is still one of consciousness. Certainly, we know that each instance of remembering is a remanufacturing of the original experience, one that alters to some extent whatever it is that the brain stores. If the brain is a receiver, though, we are left with the question of where it is receiving from. A magician might answer that there is another "level" of existence, another "plane", from which consciousness emanates, though some magicians would argue that consciousness is also from the "spirit plane".

And this doesn't exhaust the models available to us, though it runs through most of the major ideas. Which of them is correct, if any? I have no idea. I tend to favor the "emanated consciousness" model to some degree, but I am also attracted to both the "relationship" and "psychological" models—with the proviso that spirits are probably not local to any particular brain or psychology, even where they might manifest in such a "place".

So, let's talk about some of the gaming models for spirits. At the moment, I am mainly interested in the models provided by RuneQuest, HeroQuest (the Gloranthan RPG, not the Milton Bradley board game), GURPS, the HERO System—particularly the 4th edition supplement titled Horror HERODogs in the Vineyard, Fantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm, the board game from Avalon Hill. RuneQuest, GURPS, HERO SystemFantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm all offer a similar model of spirits as something basically like a material being, only composed of some immaterial substance. That is a fine model for gaming, as it is easily incorporated into the rules and allows for a wide variety of interaction with the setting of the game. HERO System does present a somewhat different method for spirits to move and interact with their environments that is worth examining. The particularly interesting outliers here are Pendragon and, though as games they are not nearly as interesting, HeroQuest and Dogs in the Vineyard.

Pendragon and HeroQuest offer a similar approach to spirits, though in a sense it is hidden in the rules of the former. A character is able to develop "Passions" in Pendragon, which are relationships such as Love, Loyalty, or the like. However, a character can develop a relationship with an abstraction that does not otherwise appear directly in the game, such as "God" or "The Red Company"—while the latter may exist as a group of ruffians or adventurers, the members of the group are what interact with the setting directly. While HeroQuest doesn't call them "Passions" (as I recall at the moment, without looking up the details), there is a similar mechanism to describe a character's relationships.

Dogs in the Vineyard is, in my opinion, a nearly-unplayable game—one significant obstacle I found was that you are supposed to describe what is happening in a challenge, but you can't actually know what happens in the challenge until the challenge is over since that is when you determine "consequences" incurred during the challenge. However, its concept that an area is affected by a particular spirit, which can influence the course of challenges indirectly by favoring one side or the other in a broad sense, is one that I want to find ways to adapt.

Now, these last few paragraphs describe models intended for gaming purposes. I think that they are useful in helping to illuminate how we think about spirits, though, since they are required to be relatively comprehensive in ways that thinking about the topic abstractly doesn't require.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Games That Influenced My Current Understanding Of RPGs

I'm still working on the follow-up to the "What is Magic?" post, describing what spirits are, exactly. I also need to write up the events of the Deindustrial Future game, where the players' characters fought off a major assault by the forces of the antagonist—or antagonists, as the case may be—and realized that they may have been making some bad assumptions about what is going on. However, because I want to post something before the end of the year, this will be a simple social media game about my history in gaming. All it really is is a list of "games that influenced me", but I want to include some commentary to make it worth your time to read. Without further ado, and after the first two in no particular order:


  1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition - This was, of course, the first RPG I played, before I had even heard the term "RPG". I learned a lot about gaming from this, in part because I had no idea what I was doing. It was where I learned that having followers is a good thing. It was where I learned that maybe you shouldn't trust your fellow players, but also that you could generally rely on them if they weren't dicks. I learned what it means to be able to attempt anything, even if you might or might not succeed. Some of those I would count as life lessons, too. I learned that resource management is a fun game in itself, even if it took me years to be able to articulate that lesson.
  2. Traveller - Since it was the first game I'd ever run instead of just being a player, this is where I learned the value of Referee tools. Random encounters, rumor tables, world generation procedures, and so on mean that the Referee can concentrate on the arc of the story and leave the details up to the dice. This has served me as well in learning what the value of divination is outside of gaming, too.
  3. Call of Cthulhu - This is where I learned that even a single rule, if properly designed, can thoroughly change the experience of the game by altering the approaches that the players will tend toward.
  4. Champions - I didn't know it at the time I was playing it, but this game taught me that point-based character creation is terrible. Even if the intent is otherwise, it encourages players to find as many loopholes in the system as they can. This is also called "system mastery", and it continues to infect some games to this day. Some games revel in that, such as Pathfinder, while others, such as GURPS, try to minimize it.
  5. RuneQuest, 3rd edition - Proved that it is possible to use points to generate characters and not have it be awful. On the other hand, it does this by limiting the point use to only one segment of character creation, the skills of the character. Technically, I probably learned this with 2nd edition and with Call of Cthulhu, but I really like 3rd edition RQ and wanted to include it in this list.
  6. Marvel Super Heroes - I learned that the description of a power—what Champions calls "special effects"—is very nearly as important as the mechanics of the power. I also learned that the direction of complexity that I was heading deeper into was not necessarily the best direction.
  7. Pendragon - There are other ways to play a game is what Pendragon taught me about gaming. Adventures can be had without making "adventuring" the centerpiece of the game. Instead, adventures can serve a larger purpose of supporting the play of families and the exercise of power politics.
  8. Hârnmaster - This game taught me that not every situation affecting a character is best simulated as a pool of resource points, but that conditions applied to the character are often the better tool to use. Also, that characters don't have to be high-competence to be fun to play. Other people learned that latter lesson with Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing, but this game was my lesson in that.
  9. Flashing Blades - Here I learned that the proper focus of a game is on the players' characters, even if the events being portrayed are larger than those characters. I also finally came to understand the lesson that I should have learned in Traveller or even earlier, that character development is not necessarily something that affects stats and skills.
  10. GURPS - Taught me that the math in the game is important, but that it should absolutely not be something that the players have to deal with much. It should be baked into the system as much as possible.
  11. Lace & Steel - Here, I learned one part of the lesson that even small things can make an adventure more fun, by helping to immerse the players into the setting. In particular, the concentration on the small indignities of travel, and how this encourages characters to choose to pay for better accommodations when available, taught me about the little things that matter to characters.
  12. Swordbearer - Like the previous entry, I learned that even seemingly minor elements, presented correctly, can add immeasurably to play, with travel being another area treated especially well, in this case by detailing how things like setting and striking camp, the condition of the travelers, weather, and so on affect matters. I also learned that sometimes finances are better handled abstractly, since the characters shouldn't be worrying about every last copper piece and so neither should the players, at least in some settings.
That gives an even dozen games, though I could have included more. I learned things from Chivalry & Sorcery, Fantasy Wargaming, Vampire: The Masquerade, TORG, Rolemaster, and many others as well, but I have to stop somewhere. That's not even counting the negative lessons—other than Champions, which I think was one of the most important lessons—such as the WotC editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Linear Fighters, Quadratic Magic-Users

I have been working on the follow-up to the article on magic, but it has gotten out of hand a couple of times as I keep finding myself going off into tangents. It's a big topic, but I am trying to boil it down.

But today I am going to talk about AD&D and other D&Ds.

A big complaint some people have about the way that game is balanced is that Magic-Users increase in power at an increasing rate throughout their careers, while Fighters tend to increase steadily. This is formulated as the Fighter improving on a linear basis, while the Magic-User improves on a quadratic basis. It certainly does seem like a conundrum, since Gary Gygax was writing AD&D on the basis of many, many hours spent running the game at a real table, for hundreds of players. How could he have missed something so obvious?

As with many things, the answer is right there in the rule books.

Gary knew that Fighters and Magic-Users had different focuses for their careers. Each was, after all, a statement by a player about how they wanted to interact with the game and setting. Everyone knows this. The other classes, Cleric, Thief, and so on, are all later attempts by various players to come up with a particular and new way to approach the game and setting, usually based on a particular fictional role model. Clerics were to be Fearless Vampire Slayers in the vein of Van Helsing in the Hammer Dracula films, Thieves were largely the Grey Mouser from Fritz Leiber's stories (and, yes, a little bit of Vance's Cugel the Clever too), Monks were an attempt to model Shaw Brothers wuxia films, Rangers were Strider/Aragorn. Later, the Barbarian was to be Conan.

The thing is, this was supposed to be a model for the character's whole career, not just a set of powers that were nifty. How did Gary see these characters spending their late careers?

The Cleric, of course, would be a fantasy Bishop, in charge of a holy temple with all of the attendants that implied, as well as believing peasants who would provide an income through their labor. This reminds me that AD&D is also explicit that the majority of the world does not have a class or level, and so most religious leaders are probably not able to cast spells, though perhaps more people who are able to are drawn to holy orders and so there would be more than among the general populace. But I digress.

Thieves become leaders of organized crime institutions, obviously.

Magic-Users, it seems would retire to a tower, presumably to pursue their studies, but they would also have a body of laborers who would fund them in exchange, it is to be supposed, for protection from threats.

Which means that Fighters should probably also have a body of laborers to protect in exchange for tax monies. Like, I would say, a noble. And what is the source of a noble's power? The number of swords they can command. And that is exactly what a high-level fighter gets access to: a loyal troop. But they only get this power if they pursue it by clearing a barony of sorts. This is where many players lose the plot. There is a perception that only hardscrabble adventuring is fun, that the logistics of running a small domain make the game bog down into boredom.

But D&D was a wargame first, and the people who played it were wargamers at heart. For many, the whole point of play was to get to where they could command fantasy troops. Exercising power means dealing with other power-brokers in the setting, which means more opportunities for adventure, not fewer, since a baron can surely equip an expedition into a ruined castle, but murderhoboes can't usually broker deals that affect the lives of thousands or more.

But this still doesn't explain the Linear/Quadratic disparity, I can hear you say. Magic-Users, the argument continues, are still more powerful at any given level.

It is true that an individual Magic-User up against an individual Fighter will have a great advantage, with some abilities that the Fighter will have difficulty countering. That said, AD&D introduced a system whereby a Fighter could prevent the Magic-User from casting by interrupting the ritual. In addition, there were requirements for material components, as well as motions and words, that made the Magic-User's job a little more difficult. Adding these together, along with the overwhelming power of masses—one thing that people learn quickly when designing wargames rules that attempt to duplicate the D&D combat system on a mass scale is that even the most powerful of heroes will have a hard time against tens or hundreds of opponents. Swords & Spells, Battlesystem, and others found that they had to emphasize the abilities of heroic individuals, or alternatively games like Delta's Book of War learned that most D&D "heroes" weren't even worth representing on the battlefield as separate figures. Even powers like a Magic-User's spells, which seem overwhelming at the individual scale, turn out to have only small effect at the battle scale—enough, to be sure, to be worth simulating, but they only steer a battle in relatively subtle ways.

Meanwhile, the loyal troop attending a Fighter steer the battle very directly.

Myself, I think that a character should get experience for the money that they take in by taxing their domain. This encourages them to expand their domain and keep it safe from threats, since the more people they protect directly affects their experience gains. That would also encourage players to play the endgame for its adventuresome qualities instead of avoiding it in favor of more dungeon-delving, murderhobo adventures. More likely, these days, I'll simply give players experience for money spent rather than collected, but I won't make any distinctions about where they got it.

And money spent on a castle is money spent.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Administrative Note

I've been writing a follow-up to the "What is magic?" post, going into more depth and detail. For now, though, I would like to note that I've turned on comment moderation for all comments on this blog. The spam has gotten worse over the last couple of years, and lately they are homing in on the newer posts that had remained unmoderated here. As a result, I'm going to have to approve all comments for at least a little while. Sorry.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What Is Magic In The First Place?

In the last post, I presented a library of sourceworks to serve as a foundation for an understanding of magic that could apply to the Middle Sea and Sundaland settings, as well as future incarnations of my Deindustrial Future setting. Partly, I wanted to clearly differentiate my approach from that of another occultist and gaming blogger, whose series on "Real Magick in RPGs"—yes, that is the spelling he uses for the word—is worth reading, but presents the topic from a very partisan perspective (much as that author's politics! ZING!) which can be quite misleading for those who take it literally and without a wider view. I won't link it because the author is kind of a jerk, but it's easy enough to Google that series up.

To figure out how magic works, we first need to know what magic is. This is an incredibly difficult question to answer definitively, and the more so as it is examined more closely. For my purposes, I will assume that "magic" is what historical magicians or magician-like people thought that they were doing. This isn't a hard and fast definition at all since it requires us to look at what "magicians" do in day to day life, and that is simply not possible from our vantage point here in the early 21st century. Even as recent an era as the 1980s remains somewhat opaque since our main source work on practicing magicians from that period has a number of methodological problems.

To our benefit, a number of magicians wrote down, in outline at least, descriptions of how they pursued their practices. While there is some obscurantism in many of these works, a lot of the codes have also been written down and others have been broken.

For simplicity, I am going to focus on the (very) Late Antique, Early Modern, and Modern eras in Europe, say from the 7th century or so on through into the 18th or 19th, and even the 20th and 21st to a degree.

Earliest in our period and location, we find the Greek Magical Papyri and the Demotic Magical Papyri (PGM/PDM). These are a collection of various papyrus manuscripts that record in quite close detail the practices of magicians of Antiquity, with some of the practices perhaps originating in prehistory. We do not need to examine this in detail, however, and will only note in passing that there is a clear line of transmission from these manuscripts into later European magical works. If you are interested in pursuing this further, I'd suggest Betz, Hans Dieter - The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Skinner, Dr. Stephen - Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, and Smith, Morton - Jesus the Magician. Those would get you started.

Another source text, roughly contemporaneous with the PGM/PDM, is Sefer HaRazim, a collection of Jewish magical practices involved with conjuring the spirits of the dead, appeasing them, exorcising them, and so forth. Our interest here is mainly to show that there is a melting pot of practices in the eastern Mediterranean region, from Egypt to Greece, that resulted in a basic pattern of what would become the central magical practices of Europe for centuries to come.

Because of the way that books were circulated in Europe prior to the introduction of the printing press, there are lines of tradition that we can consider, rather than necessarily individual titles. So, for example, there is the "Solomonic" line of texts, which include books that find their ultimate origin in the Byzantine magical text known variously as Hygromanteia (Ὑγρομαντεία), Solomonikê (Σολομωνική), or The Magical Treatise of Solomon, among other names. However, these books vary greatly in the exact text, with some leaving parts out, adding new parts, or rearranging sections. The Solomonic books make up most of the magical texts that exist, but there other others such as Picatrix, which finds its origin in an Arabian text titled Ghayat al-Hakim ("Goal of the Wise"), translated initially into Latin then into other languages; the similarly-named but different traditions of the Cyprianus, or Swedish Svarteboken, which lead to the Braucherei tradition, also known as Pennsylvania Hex magic, among others, and the books of magic that attribute themselves to St. Cyprian of Antioch, the "Necromancer Saint"; the Faustian tradition, which consists of a number of texts that seem to be based on the legend or play; variations of the Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim; and a few others. Some of these are among the strands of tradition that form the various African Traditional Religions as practiced in the New World. More recent years have brought a few further texts such as the infamous Necronomicon, widely available in a mass market edition from Avon Books; The Voudon Gnostic Workbook by Michael Bertiaux and related books; the various works of "Chaos Magick" theorists and practitioners such as Peter Carroll, Phil Hine, and others; various texts on "witchcraft" of varying quality, some connected with the religion known as Wicca and many not; the practice known as "Huna" developed by Max Freedom Long; the Thelemic and other texts associated with Thelema, many by Aleister Crowley, though a lot of more obscure books written by others; the Thelemic works have their origin in a strand of tradition known as the Golden Dawn, which owes at least a portion of its practices to the works of Éliphas Lévi; the rediscovery of Dr. John Dee's 16th and early 17th century magical manuscripts in the 19th century was another influence on the Golden Dawn and Thelema, but that collection also forms a tradition of its own. In addition, there are folk magical practices, some recorded relatively faithfully—such as in the Rev. Robert Kirk's manuscript The Secret Commonwealth, published in an abridged form in the 19th century, then in a more complete form in the 20th—while others can only be seen dimly from the point of view of people antagonistic to them such as the records of witch and werewolf trials mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. And this really isn't a complete catalog.

This anarchic mass of textual data is difficult to assimilate. However, we can point out a few common practices throughout. First, there is "Spirit Magic", in which various "spirits"—whatever we may come to mean by this—are interacted with in various ways. This can be through divination of various sorts, the perceptions of a sensitive "medium", or even full-on possession, as with "channeling" or the practices of various African Traditional Religions. This includes practices which purport to direct or determine the influence of "astral energies"—sometimes called Astral Magic—and the practices known as "theurgy" which are designed to align the practitioner with some spiritual power. Further, the practices known as Natural Magic, which intend to direct the powers of natural objects such as herbs and stones, or even the more sophisticated methods of the Alchemists, can also be seen as directing or assessing the spirits of those objects. Some forms of Natural Magic (and the same is true of Astral Magic) intend to take advantage of psychological processes, such as a similarity of appearance, but others rely on real or apparent physical properties.

Second, there is divination that is not apparently related to spirits. This is a difficult distinction to make, though, and only becomes more so as the idea of spirits is examined more deeply. However, the idea of viewing locations at a distance, which some now call "remote viewing", has an ancient pedigree. Other forms include "oneiromancy", or the interpretation of dreams, scrying, inducing various sorts of altered states of consciousness, and various forms of sortilege, or casting and otherwise manipulating lots, cards, sticks, dice, or whatever, among other things. This is a major topic of its own.

Thirdly, we can identify what we might call "Psychic Magic", or "magic" that is related to altered states of consciousness. This crosses over to "Spirit Magic" and "Divination" considerably, but includes other practices such as the "berserk" state, self-hypnosis, and induction of hypnotic states in others. There are other examples as well.

Finally, there is the practice of "Illusion". This is exactly the sort of thing that modern stage magicians do. The thing is, it turns out that a lot of magical practices occur on a purely internal, invisible level. Sometimes, that internal, invisible matter needs to be dramatized, and so we find practitioners engaging in allegedly "fraudulent" (though, notably, the only perspective from which there is fraud is from a naïve, predetermined, materialist one; other perspectives will emphasize the efficacy rather than any theoretical metaphysics allegedly underlying the practices), but nonetheless effective to some degree, practices like "psychic surgery" or the like.

And here is a point for a quick digression. Everyone has a metaphysics, whether they understand it consciously or not. This is the model of how the universe works that allows a person to comprehend the things that happen around them. There is no known way to prove one metaphysical model over another, except perhaps by comparing effectiveness—and that only shows a relative effectiveness by whatever definition of "effective" is employed, not any final determination of objective validity. But this is another essay entirely. For our purposes, let's just agree that a non-materialistic model of the universe is at least possible, and so the universe of the magician is not a prima facie impossibility.

I may have missed some other practices, but these seem like the central four to me. This model offers a primary place for "spirits", which leads us to the next question: what, exactly, is a "spirit"? That is a good question for next time. Also, at some point I need to get more explicit about the gaming connection. I'll get there.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Continuing To Evolve An Approach To Magic - Introductory Library

For both the Sundaland and Middle Sea settings, and perhaps for future iterations of the Deindustrial Future setting, I want to keep refining my approach to magic. I've never been very fond of the lightning bolts and fireballs approach of D&D and its derivatives, even though I understand the process that got it there. I'm also not really that happy with the exploding chests ("I think I will take your heart, Kerim Shah!") and rays of energy approach of Conan and the like. I want magic to be subtle, but still effective.

To that end, I have been trying to work out an approach that retains the mystery of magic and the spiritual world, but also would allow me to replicate something like the way that magic is perceived in the world we live in. Clearly, there are magicians. Equally clearly, there are people who employ those magicians to do something for them. What it is that they do is the area I want to try to approach for my games and stories.

As usual for my process, I want to start by providing a library for anyone who might be interested in a similar approach. Mostly, it's books by people who seem to think that magic is a real thing that can have real effects in the world, but some of it is by anthropologists who study people who seem to think that way.

  • Child, Alice B. and Irvin L. Child - Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples - an excellent overview of the subject from an anthropological perspective.
  • Couliano, Ioan P. - Eros and Magic in the Renaissance - Prof. Culianu's work regarding magic, or rather his apparent practical application of the principles to the political situation in his native Romania, may have resulted in his assassination in a bathroom at the university where he taught. In any case, perhaps the best introduction to the realities of magic as it was understood by at least one famous Renaissance-era magician.
  • Dunn, Patrick - Postmodern Magic: The Art of Magic in the Information Age - an attempt to provide an explanation for magic, different than some others here, but definitely worth looking into. Dunn has other books on the subject as well.
  • Greer, John Michael - Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology - one attempt to lay out the practical boundaries of magic from the point of view of one practitioner. Different people are of the opinion that there is more or less permeability between different "levels" of existence, and that there are more or fewer levels in the first place, but this offers a pretty basic outline of the general concept.
  • Greer, John Michael - A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism - a polemic argument in favor of spirit beliefs.
  • Harpur, Patrick - Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld - an essay toward a reconciliation of materialism and spiritualism through some strange ideas indeed. Like a lot of similar works, ends up talking about flying saucers, by necessity.
  • "IAO131" - Naturalistic Occultism: An Introduction to Scientific Illuminism - in addition, the author maintains a website here. An overview of those elements of traditional magical practices that have correlations with neuroscience and similar disciplines.
  • Keel, John A. - Operation Trojan Horse: The Classic Breakthrough Study of UFOs - sometimes titled UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse, Keel penned one of the more interesting books on a phenomenon where some of the stranger details make more sense from a spiritual/animist perspective than a materialist one.
  • Keith, William H. Jr. - The Science of the Craft: Modern Realities in the Ancient Art of Witchcraft - tried perhaps too hard to reconcile science and magic. Ends up going down a quantum mechanic-esque rabbit hole. Some of the ideas serve to provide an introduction into the fringes of science that lead to difficult questions about the materialist assumptions regarding reality.
  • Lecouteux, Claude - Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages - I'll let this stand in for a great number of works by Lecouteux. An excellent introduction to the ideas that underpin Northern European magical ideas. He has a number of excellent books on the topic, some still awaiting translation to English.
  • Luhrmann, T.M. - Persuasions of the Witch's Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England - Luhrmann was castigated by her informants after the fact for betraying their confidence, and she chose to "explain" elements of her informants' testimony from her own perspective. This is both a detriment and a benefit, as it gives a partial explanation of magic that is palatable to those with a modern materialist set of assumptions, but it also caused her to miss a lot of what was going on. Really needs to be supplemented with some of the other books in this list.
  • Paper, Jordan - The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology - a description of spirit belief from an educated insider.
  • Pócs, Éva - Between the Living and the Dead - spirit beliefs in Eastern Europe.
  • "Skallagrimsson, Wayland" - Scientific Magic - an attempt to define magic as a product of altered states of consciousness. Pretty good, but as a result of its central thesis it is unable to cover more than a fraction of magical practices.
  • Walsh, Brian - The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex - an analysis of an early anthropological essay regarding native spiritual beliefs in Northwestern Europe.
  • Wier, Dennis - Trance: From Magic to Technology - the author has a number of other books here, but I haven't read any of his others.
  • Wilby, Emma - Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic - an overview of the matter as it existed in recent history in largely English-speaking regions.
So, that's my introductory library. I could add any number of other works, such as those which include recorded testimony of accused werewolves in Europe—you might be surprised to find out how prosaic their claims really were—or the large body of texts on NLP, hypnosis, and stage illusion, among other topics. I didn't even touch on the literature about entheogenic substances and practices.

Anyway, next time I'll get into how I think that magic should work in my settings.